Part high school hierarchy drama, part crime tale, “Selah and the Spades,” now playing on Amazon Prime, is a study of power and teenage clique system at Haldwell, an elite Pennsylvania boarding school ruled by five “factions.” “The factions are realistic in the need for the student body to engage in their vices,” we’re told by the narrator (Jessie Cannizzaro), “and are pragmatic in facilitating them.”
The Seas “will help you cheat your way through anything for the right price,” while the Skins deal in anything students can gamble on. The Bobby’s are responsible for every illegal party thrown in a dorm basement after lights out and the Prefects keep the administration blissfully unaware of on campus shenanigans.
The dominant faction, The Spades, deal in the classic vices, booze, pills, powders and fun, under the iron fisted rule of Selah (Lovie Simone).
Like a teenage Costra Nostra the factions live by an Omertà, an inflexible code. Don’t be a rat ns the only consequences to be concerned with are the ones they impose themselves.
As an A student who will soon graduate, Selah has her mind of succession. Who will take her place to ensure the Spades stay the most powerful clique in school? With her first lieutenat Maxxie (“When They See Us’s” Jharrel Jerome) distracted by a new boyfriend, Selah sets her eye on Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) the new girl in school as her protégée.
Meanwhile, when the headmaster (Jesse Williams) cancels the prom over the misconduct of a handful of students, tensions erupt between the factions as they search for a rat in the ranks.
“Selah and the Spades” is a promising feature debut from director Tayarisha Poe. Visually stunning and filled with charismatic performances, it is a mix-and-match of high school movie tropes and film noir crime drama. Imagine if John Hughes, the great American portrayer of high school life, had ever tried his hand at gangster movies and you get the idea. It’s a study of how precarious life is at the top of the social hierarchy that saturates its story with elements of “Scarface” and female empowerment. “They never take girls seriously,” Selah says. “It’s a mistake the whole world makes.”
The story sputters near the end but is kept alive by the atmosphere of tension Poe infuses into every scene and the lead performance. Simone is equal parts power and insecurity, never letting her guard down except in a phone call to her mother. When her mom asks what happed to the other seven points on test where Selah scored 93, we immediately understand the weight this young woman carries around and her need to control her surroundings in the face of an uncertain future. It gives the character a much needed does of humanity that elevates her from extreme-mean girl to compelling character.
“Selah and the Spades” is an excellent debut for Poe, fierce and fascinating.